The Reality of NaNoWriMo

CC image by CrankyAshley

If you’ve been a writer for any amount of time, chances are good you’ve heard about National Novel Writing Month. And if you’ve met other writers who have also heard of it, chances are also good that you’ve been highly encouraged (maybe pressured is more accurate) to participate. I’m here to tell you that it’s okay if you don’t. You don’t have to write a novel in a month in order to be a writer. NaNoWriMo is a tool, and it can be helpful, but it is not for everyone.

CC image by CrankyAshley

CC image by CrankyAshley

To be perfectly honest, I have never participated.

I know many people who have, and I think it’s great that they persevere and meet their goals. But I know myself, and I know how I write. Anything I write fast for the sake of writing fast is not quality. And when I don’t write quality, I feel like a failure. If I did NaNoWriMo, I would end up with 50,000 words, ninety-five percent of which would be worthless. Maybe I could take an idea from the other five percent and use it elsewhere, but I doubt it.

See, although I’ve never written a novel in November, I’ve done an extended version of the exercise for my honor’s thesis when I was in college. I wrote a book in about four months and ended up with 64,000 words. At the time, it was a great accomplishment, and it was nice to finish something. Looking back at the actual content, however, I hate it. It’s a plot driven story with a flat political agenda drifting in a world of “Tracy was too lazy to develop you.” I like one character, and he’s not even the point of view character. I’m not sure I’ll ever attempt to rethink the story; I don’t even know where to begin.

Now, if I did rediscover my intrigue in the idea, at least having written so much, I would know what not to do. And that for me is largely the purpose of NaNoWriMo. If you remember back to my crafting blogs, one of the first things I said was that you have to have something written in order to craft it. Pushing yourself to writing something, anything, in a month can be a great help toward that. Getting your words on paper, getting your mind flowing with ideas—that is NaNoWriMo at its best.

But it’s not the godsend so many writers think it to be.

The danger with NaNoWriMo is that it can discourage young writers rather than help them. Young writers can be pressured or forced into participating and might think that they’re not a real writer if they don’t (I know I did), or worse that they’re a failure if they don’t finish. I felt pressured every year since I learned about it. I chose not to do it every year because I didn’t want to set myself up for failure. Writing 1,667 words a day seems impossible enough, but what if I missed a day? Suddenly, I have 3,334 to do and still somehow have energy and creative juices left for the day after that.

You end up writing for the sake of word count instead of for the sake of the story. You stretch out scenes that shouldn’t be stretched. You ignore things that you shouldn’t because you don’t have time to really research or plan. Characters end up making decisions because, well… word count. Your quality goes down exponentially. The plot feels forced. And at the end of the month, even if you reach 50,000 words, what do you really have?

CC image by palo

CC image by palo

We’ve grown this perception through NaNoWriMo that 50,000 words will make you accepted in the writing world. Though that count may classify as a novel, it’d be very short, less than 100 pages. My 64,000 story was only 102 pages.

The point is that NaNoWriMo never encouraged the kind of writing that I believe in. The act of writing should be an exploration. It should be exciting, not something you have to do, not something to stress you out because you also have life going on around it. Sometimes a 1,000 word scene flies off your fingers in an hour or two. And sometimes it takes a week to get half that. Writing is a process; it involves mapping, researching, planning, discussing, learning, and doing life to experience new things. NaNoWriMo doesn’t account for that.

To those of you who haven’t participated or maybe didn’t reach the 50,000 word goal, you’re not alone, and it’s okay. It doesn’t make you any less of a writer. Don’t let someone who does write 50,000 words in a month make you feel inferior. Be happy that they accomplished their goal but confident that you’re doing the best method for you.

For those of you who do participate in NaNoWriMo, remember that it is a tool. It’s a great way to push through writer’s block, and it’s good to set goals that stretch you. I truly admire those of you that push yourself to meet them. However, don’t assume that you’ll be left with something publishable at the end of the month. It may be that you need to scrap the whole thing and rewrite everything later. That’s okay. Crafting is a big part of the writing process.

Any of you can modify the tool to your liking. It’s just like a writing exercise: you have to change it to make it relevant for you. If you chose to only do 5,000 words in a month, but they were the best 5,000 words that you could possibly do, then isn’t that better than 50,000 words you can’t use at all?

I want to foster young writers to write their best, not their fastest. NaNoWriMo doesn’t do that for me, so I am unlikely to use it or recommend it. Whether you use it or not, I wish all you writers the best of luck.

By Tracy Buckler